Cape Town – The Cheetahs are the leakiest South African franchise in try terms in Super Rugby thus far, with the fading Stormers now pretty hot on their heels.
With a concession of 42 tries from nine matches thus far – exactly double what the Lions and Sharks (21 each) have given up to opponents – the Free Staters are only less inept than one other team in the competition; the Sunwolves have conceded 51.
But the once-touted Stormers, who won their first six matches on the trot before losing their next three rather heavily to the Lions, Crusaders and Highlanders, are uncomfortably close themselves now to the Cheetahs’ unwanted statistic.
The Capetonians – who ironically prided themselves on defence during the Allister Coetzee years, even as attack was a thorny issue - have slumped into the bottom five for tries conceded, with 37 against.
That puts them level with the improving Kings, who earned a maiden clean sheet in tries conceded on Saturday as they trounced the Rebels 44-3, and only better than the Sunwolves, Cheetahs, Rebels (41) and Waratahs (39).
What is the arguably critical, tell-tale common denominator between the Stormers and Cheetahs?
As top pundit Nick Mallett was not slow to point out in the SuperSport studio on Saturday, both franchises sport unusually small back threes, both in kilograms and height terms.
He made the reasonably obvious but entirely pertinent point that the Stormers and Cheetahs have fullbacks and wings who look much more assured going forward than they do in defensive terms, particularly when juggernaut opposite numbers are charging at them.
While it is perfectly true that smaller men like 81kg, 1.77m Damian McKenzie can also look perfectly comfortable and sometimes massively influential for the standout New Zealand teams, they tend to have notably brawny team-mates very nearby in positional terms, serving as key balancers.
After all, the majority of NZ and Australian sides are traditionally able to field at least one “bus” – most commonly a player with his roots in the Pacific Islands - in a wing or outside centre berth, capable of simply trampling defenders or at very least committing two or three to stopping him and simultaneously creating useful gaps elsewhere on the park.
The Stormers team gored by the Highlanders at the weekend featured SP Marais (80kg, 1.84m), Cheslin Kolbe (73kg, 1.71m) and Dillyn Leyds (79kg, 1.85m), all of them extremely gifted rugby players but far from a perfect foil for each other.
Although the name of a certain Sireli Naqelevuki raises decidedly mixed memories among Stormers fans between 2008 and 2010 as he wasn’t always too flash in retreating situations or in the concentration department, the massive 113kg Fijian is roughly the type of physical unit the current team sorely lack out wide; he certainly used to “suck in” anxious defenders and demand heavy policing near the rival try-line.
If you had the ever-gutsy, slippery Kolbe on one wing and a significantly thicker-set, taller man on the other for the Stormers, it would immediately give their back three a rather more rounded look than presently commanded.
Ditto the Cheetahs who, in the shape of Clayton Blommetjies at fullback and someone like Sergeal Petersen on their right wing, also come up short for pure tonnage and any kind of aura on defence in wide berths.
It is not too many months ago, let’s not forget, that Petersen, who is wonderful to watch as a finisher and for his general elusive qualities, found his maiden (non-Test) start for the Boks a near-nightmarish one as he was repeatedly swatted off by the Barbarians’ enormous Taqele Naiyaravoro (123kg versus Petersen’s 83kg) at Wembley Stadium.
You would like to think that the still only 22-year-old Petersen has a top-flight international future, but for that to happen it may be necessary to ensure that he has sufficient brawn around him in the backline to compensate for his own physical limitations.
Apart, perhaps, from occasional caps – four – for 2007 RWC winner JP Pietersen during the Boks’ troubled last season, the national team also tended to lack real muscle or height among the back three; that may stay the case if players like veteran Bryan Habana, Willie le Roux and currently injury-rehabbing Lions utility factor Ruan Combrinck remain part of coach Coetzee’s plans.
It is why someone like Leicester Tigers-based Pietersen should not be summarily dismissed as a candidate for 2017 green-and-gold purposes.
At his fittest and most motivated, the 106kg, 1.90m Pietersen is a long-striding attacker with known tackle-busting ability in those sturdy thighs, and the 70-cap Bok is far from a spent rugby force at 30.
If the Bok brains trust can make him feel really wanted and his conditioning is either kept or brought right up to scratch, there is no reason why he cannot act as the kind of “presence” South Africa could really do with in a back three.
Of course the name of another Bok who was part of the now-distant 2007 RWC success, that 29-year-old singular character Frans Steyn (Montpellier), has already been suggested as a potential recall to Test activity this year after an absence of more than four years.
Fullback still seems a fairly attractive station for him, even if No 12 is another potential gap he could fill in difficult times injury-wise … he has dream physical attributes for the last line of defence at 1.91m and the weight, frankly, of some lock forwards.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing